Content Note: COVID-19
(This started out as a Twitter thread draft that I eventually discarded and turned into this post.)
If you are a person who hasn’t been in school for a while now, I need you to understand how little control students have over school administration decisions. Yes, even in college. Yes, even in graduate school. So many decisions are made for us, without us. We do not get (much of) a say in the decisions, policies, and rules that govern our lives. Even when those decisions are potentially ones of life and death for us, our families, and our communities.
I went to a college that was routinely recognized nationally for having the student government/student body most active in school decisions. We had student input and equity built into the fabric of our school. I sat on committees that made important policy decisions and I was always treated as an equal. And yet, there were still many decisions that students had effectively no say in. I graduated college in the spring but I know current students who are still heavily involved in campus work and have advocating for the needs and well-being of students all semester. In many cases, they are ignored or dismissed. And this is at a school that is fully online for the fall. The stakes are much higher for schools that are in-person.
So when I see people chewing out students who are leaving school and going home for the holidays, I wince. The majority of those students have no other option. Many schools are closing dorms and making it effectively impossible for students to remain over break. If you/your family has the money for you to stay somewhere local for the break (which is five or six weeks for many students, due to the semester cutting off early at or just after Thanksgiving and then not restarting until later in January), you might be able to stay local. But many students do not have that option. The only place they can go is home. And so they travel.
I do not like it. I am terrified of how virus cases are going to spike after Thanksgiving. But I refuse to blame students for policies that they have no control over. I refuse to blame students for something they’re not happy about either. And I am so very tired of seeing posts subtly or not-so-subtly blaming students for travelling, as if they have any option. As if “stay on campus” was a legitimate option for most of them. As if schools did not make the decision to make students return for the fall and then kick them out just before Thanksgiving. As if students are not humans with actual lives and needs and hopes and dreams but merely viral hosts. Because that’s what it feels like: people who have been out of school for years now and have much more control over their lives reducing students who are taking the only option available to them as passive hosts.
And if your school or work has been online this semester and allowed you to stay home (at your permanent home), you are lucky. I am lucky to have been able to stay home for the semester. Many, many students went back to campuses, and now must return home, despite the danger. It is so tiring and enraging to see adults who have worked from home (and been granted the opportunities to stay home for other errands, like groceries, via the underpaid/unpaid labor of others) for the past five months blame students who had no choice but to return to campus and now are being forced to return home. If that’s you, please take a minute to reflect.
If we had a functional government and a functional educational system, we would have had joint guidance from the CDC and the Department of Education (on a federal level) and state/local public health departments and offices of education months ago telling schools either a) keep students home and hold classes completely online or b) if students must return to campus, keep dorms open over breaks and do not allow students to return home except in extraordinary circumstances. We have failed our students, and their families, communities, and loved ones, so deeply that we did not have that. We are now putting unknowable numbers of people at risk and blaming the people with the least agency in all of this for the failures of our governments.
I am not saying students are totally blameless. Many have made inadvisable decisions that have put themselves and others at risk: parties, gatherings, etc.. This semester has shown us the interplay between government policies, community contracts, and individual decisions. Students should be held accountable for decisions within their control. But campus closures are one place where I do not blame students. It is not within their control.
I realize that students could organize around this. I fully support protests, sit-ins, occupations, and other student actions highlighting these policy failures and demanding a rapid change to policy to allow students who have not already departed to stay on campus for the break. But I am also aware that these actions often only result in disciplinary actions and punishment for students with no change to policy. And I also worry that administration will take any student action, no matter how carefully planned and safely executed, as an excuse to punish students for physical distancing/pandemic hygiene violations. Furthermore, at least in the US, students also do not have the same organizing structure and ability to unionize that workers do. (Student workers, such as graduate student instructors, are more likely to unionize but students on their own rarely do.) The reason labor union actions/strikes/threats of strike are successful, at least in part, is because union locals have saved money, resources, and a larger national union they can call on for help. Students do not have that. Please, please do not blame students for not organizing around this. Even if a group of students had all the things I have mentioned, I wouldn’t blame them for not organizing. This semester has been hell. We have all been just surviving.
Please have a little empathy. Please think back to high school/college/grad school and remember how decisions were made for you, not with you. Please understand that students do not want this. This is a policy and school admin failure on a mass scale. And students will suffer. Their families and loved ones, who they care so deeply about, will suffer. Their communities, which they are deeply enmeshed in, will suffer. I believe that students and young people, despite our follies and bad decisions, are fundamentally good people. We know, at some level, how important and dangerous this is. And we are, in so many cases, powerless to fix it. Burdening us with the blame for a decision we had little to no say in, a decision that affects us just as much as anyone else, does nothing to fix the problem. It only hurts more people will no ability to fix things.